There’s not much sadness in her voice. No trace of anger. All the upheaval took place when Vani Tanumi had just learned to walk and talk, so she doesn’t remember any of it.
Her answer to the question about her parents is more matter-of-fact than anything. Her mom died before Vani turned two, and her dad left the family. Vani, now 19, has no recollection of her mom or dad. What she does know is that she was reared by Grandma and Grandpa, her mom’s parents. It’s the only life Vani’s ever known, and so she smiles. But she smiles because she’s happy. Truly.
Despite the chaos in her life, Vani’s grandparents threw her a life jacket, giving her the one thing she absolutely needed: stability. And with that came one other thing she learned she couldn’t do without: the gospel. “The Church has been a great help to me,” she says.
Suluya Racule, three weeks older than Vani, faces her own challenges. Suluya didn’t grow up in the Church, although it seemed like she did. She began attending Primary when she was nine because her aunt, a Church member, was a Primary teacher. She spent the first 15 years of her life as a nonmember, even though she knew a lot about the gospel. And she kept going to church even when her aunt and uncle moved to Tonga. But her membership status changed from nonmember to member in December 1995 when she was finally able to be baptized.
Even now, almost four years later, Suluya is still the only member of the Church in her immediate family.
“My parents were against my getting baptized. They thought I was too young to know the truth, and they thought I should go around to other churches and see what they were like before I decided,” she remembers. “But I had this strong feeling inside of me that this was the true church. I couldn’t think of any other church to go to.”
Maybe it takes a little adversity—or even a lot of it—to truly appreciate what you have. Vani admits it’s been difficult at times not having her mom and dad around. Suluya, meanwhile, would like nothing better than to have her family join her on Sundays. For now, she goes to church alone.
Neither situation is easy. But they both have testimonies, and that’s where their strength comes from.
Vani and Suluya have nothing in common, and they have everything in common. Yes, they both live in Suva, the capital of Fiji, a tropical country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But they don’t go to the same school, and their interests are very different. But while Vani attends the Church-sponsored LDS Technical College (she wants to be a lawyer), and Suluya goes to the city’s International Secondary School where her emphasis has been on information technology, they unite on Sundays at the Lami Second Ward. This is where they come together and form a common bond.
When school ends, in many ways Vani’s day is just beginning. She gets off the bus at around 3:30 after school, and she walks a few blocks to her home. There will be little time to goof around. There’s homework to do, but there’s also cooking, cleaning, laundry, and dishes. Grandpa died two years ago, and Grandma is not healthy and can’t do the things she used to.
“I have to look after my grandma. I have to help her. I know it’s been pretty hard for her because she raised her own kids and then turned around and raised me,” Vani says.
“It’s been a challenge for me not to have parents,” she adds. “But being involved in the Church is a great help because it has provided me with so much. Right now I’m the secretary in the Primary [presidency], and I teach the CTR class.”
When Vani entered the Young Women program, she served as Beehive class president and was first counselor in the Mia Maid class presidency. Later she served as Laurel class president. It’s obvious that when it comes to her own priorities, Vani emphasizes the gospel.
“Because I’ve been a leader, I feel a responsibility for the girls who have fallen from the Church,” she adds. She’s thoughtful for a moment. She feels bad that once-active girls no longer come out.
When Suluya is asked about her conversion, she gladly shares the details of her Christmas Eve baptism. She fairly beams as she remembers that day. Suluya then mentions the death of her father two years ago. “Heart failure.” He was 47. The conversation switches gears.
“Although I’ve always wanted my family to join the Church, his death has encouraged me even more to help my mom and my sister get baptized. I’m trying so hard to get them to come to church with me,” she says. When Suluya was baptized, her family didn’t attend the service. “But they understand that the Church is a commitment to me, and they respect my decision and support me. Still, it’s hard to see families sitting together at church, and my family isn’t there. When you have something this good, you want to share it with your family.”
Suluya admits she was closer to her father than to her mother, but accepts that maybe in some ways his death was a blessing. “It’s brought my sister and me closer to our mom. We’ve really gotten to know our mom better,” she explains.
Vani and Suluya are not far from leaving their teenage years behind. Life ahead will be full of changes. As they look back, you can’t help but wonder how things might have been different.
What if Suluya’s entire family had joined the Church with her? What if Vani had grown up in a two-parent home? What if life was a little easier? Neither thinks about the questions. They both look ahead, happy for what they do have. Their life experiences have shaped them into what they are, and fortunately the gospel gives them that much of an advantage. They’re both daughters of God. And they’re happy.